Almost seven years ago, Maurice Ashley realized his dream of becoming an International Grandmaster. The scene was the Manhattan Chess Club and Ashley was having a strong tournament and had beaten Giorgi Kacheishvili and Jonathan Ady and Adrian Negulescu in consecutive rounds to clinch the norm. In an interview with NPR, Ashley described the moment against Negulescu:
“When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it. I knew that if I won this game I was a Grandmaster. When the moment came that I saw the winning move, I couldn’t believe it… I just I froze… stayed at the board. I said, “This move does it? I can’t believe it.” I double-checked… I looked all around and said, “Wait I hope he’s not setting a trap for me.” Then I saw it… it was clear. If I make the move he’s going to have to give up and when I did it and he gave up, I was just ecstatic… I was just thrilled. I just couldn’t believe it. I’d been dreaming about this for more than half my life and suddenly it was real.”
(Listen to “GM Ashley earns the GM title” – National Public Radio, 17 March 1999)
This moment in chess became the most celebrated for a number of different reasons. Ashley was the first Black Grandmaster and showed that a player can overcome the obstacles of adversity to accomplish something only 470 chess players (now 600) in the world have been able to accomplish. I remember seeing the May 1999 issue of Chess Life with Ashley’s picture on the cover. I was filled with tremendous pride because I had been thinking about developing a communicative medium to highlight Black players and this image provided further inspiration. It would be another two years before The Chess Drum would be born.
Over the years, Ashley has become involved in many different facets of chess which includes service as a coach/trainer, commentator, tournament organizer and author. Despite his presence in these capacities, many may not appreciate the other ways in which Ashley may contribute to the royal game. On the 2nd of September 2002, I had a 40-minute telephone conversation with the Jamaican-born, Brooklyn bred pioneer. The interview demonstrates how valuable of a figure he is to the chess community at-large. For those with aspirations in chess, this interview must be heard!
“There comes a point in chess where the truth is more important than the principle. I think a lot of players are guided by principle… two bishops are good; rook on an open file; doubled pawns are bad; don’t leave your king in the center. I think that a big difference between Grandmasters and lower-rated players is that those principles are only guidelines… they’re not the truth. They may help you GET to the truth, but a lot of times they may stand in your way of understanding the truth.”
(Listen to “The Mind of a Grandmaster” 2 September 2002)
If we look back at the career of Maurice Ashley we see that he has excelled in a number of different areas, but never stands still. Not only has he coached championship teams, but he has also produced educational materials with his popular CD-ROM “Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess,” and his recent educational treatise, “Chess for Success.” These materials will stand the test of time and will remain as examples of dedication.
One may not remember his “Unity” chess tournaments back in 1992, but these were very ambitious attempts to establish a training ground for Black masters. I remember chatting with Ashley back in 1990 about his ideas and shared with him my business plan for a Pan-African chess magazine. This idea would later become “The Chess Drum,” an idea whose time had come.
Ashley’s infectious energy later lead to his role in the Harlem Educational Activities Fund where he organized various chess festivals and later helped to make the 2001 Wilbert Paige Memoriala historic success. In April 2003, he organized the Generation Chess International which pioneered the ‘no draw’ rule. In May 2005, he organized the HB Global Chess Challenge which will go down as one of the most memorable tournaments in history. The $500,000 prize fund raised the bar and attempted to make chess more exciting. The ‘no draw’ rule was used again with great success.
Perhaps Ashley’s role as a visionary is often overlooked because of his various activities, but he has been in the forefront of promoting chess in the Black community and the world at-large. There is much talk concerning whether Ashley will return to chess as a player, but he ensures me that he “still has a few mates left in him.”